Saturday 1 October 2016

Inspiring time in the company of American dreamers

Published 19/03/2016 | 02:30

Billy Keane with his daughter Laura at the White House this week
Billy Keane with his daughter Laura at the White House this week

When I stepped into the White House, I felt as if I was walking in someone else's shoes. I was there representing my family in the United States. Friends too and all of us who truly believe in the American Dream.

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My auntie Anne and my uncle Teddy emigrated when they were teenagers. Teddy and Anne have been in America for over 60 years now. Anne is on my dad's side and Teddy is on my mother's side. Because of health issues they are unable to come home on holidays. They miss Ireland so much and we miss them.

Anne and Teddy used to love coming home.

So there I was representing Teddy and Anne and all of the cousins we have in The States from Kentucky to San Francisco. From New York to Florida. They came over here to America when there was nothing for them at home.

My daughter Laura won the family draw for the plus one and as we walked in through the doors of the White House for the President's St Patrick's Day party, we heard the lifting, lilting pipe music as were going through security and it stirred the heart.

We walked in as if we were in Croke Park following on behind the Artane Band. Immensely proud, in our best clothes, and all those Irish-American family and friends marching alongside in my mind's eye.

Challenge

President Barack Obama's speech and the whole emotion of the occasion has changed my view of Irishness, of what it means to be one of us. Our greatest challenge as a nation is coming at us fast and hardly anyone here has a plan. The world is moving house and most are heading for Europe.

We wandered around the White House as if it was our very own. There we met three Prime Ministers. One of the negotiators of the peace process told us it was here in Washington away from the glare of cameras and reporters that the Peace Process was brokered.

"Bitter enemies became firm friends. President Clinton played the sax and sang his heart out until four o'clock in the morning. And the other side didn't seem so bad after all."

Just being there inspires us.

The constant complaining here in this country would wear you down but the Americans really are a can-do people. 'Is féidir linn' should be our morning and evening prayer.

We were invited by Kevin O'Malley, the American ambassador to Ireland. I met him in Listowel just a few days after the Berkeley tragedy. He is a quietly spoken man whose parents were Irish. You could see how emotionally involved he was.

Ambassador O'Malley cares. There were direct calls to the White House and our boys and girls were brought home to their grieving parents within a few days of the accident.

Ambassador O'Malley is in Ireland to represent the interests of the United States but he continually supports the bringing of jobs to our country. And much more. The Ambassador is as much an Irishman as an American. He understands better than most what is to be an Irish American. His parents came from our west and now their son is the American ambassador to Ireland.

We were told to go right up the rope to get the chance to shake hands with the President.

There's this bunch who go every year from Moneygall and by now they have become Washington insiders. Henry Healy, the president's cousin, is Mr Washington.

Ollie Hayes, the president's favourite publican and his good buddy, was there too as was Fr Joe Kennedy, the amiable PP of Moneygall and another cousin young Billy. Henry and Billy had Twitter and Facebook hopping. They really are smart and do all they can to boost Moneygall, which is as it should be.

And so we bring the first exclusive. While the rest of us were outside the rope looking in at the President and the Vice-President, the Moneygall boys were hanging out with their buddy Barack.

He told the boys he was dying to get back to Ireland and there were a few golf courses he wanted to try out. He has a genuine affection for his Moneygall friends. Last year he was heartbroken when he had to refuse the lads' invitation to "come on out for a few quiet few pints".

So Ollie and myself were there, two country publicans, drinking green champagne in the drawing room of the White Hose and he telling me without any sort of affectation all about his chat with his buddy Barack.

President Obama's speech was truly inspiring. He really does feel Irish and the opening line of "I'm here to welcome my own people" brought the house down.

He spoke scathingly of the racist bigot Trump who just the other day called Mexican emigrants rapists and promised to build a wall around Mexico. Don't vote for him. He'll be after the Irish next.

The President's message was we should be knocking walls, not putting them up. The words were meant not just for Trump but for all of us and especially our friends up north.

President Obama spoke of the Irish blood running through his daughter's veins. And when he mentioned the Moneygall boys, I let a big roar our out of me. The roar put the President off his stride.

So he looked over to me and asked, "Are they here?" And I said, "Yes, right at the back of the hall." So you ask me do I know Barack? We had a chat didn't we? In the White House.

And then the President went on to say he was still trying to have the Irish undocumented made legal. He meant every word. There was fire in his eyes and fire in his voice.

Enda Kenny is at his best in America. His speech was truly inspirational and he quoted a line we wrote just after the election as he walked with the President. "Service is forgotten when sins are forgiven."

Laura got to shake the President's hand he gave her a big smile. I was knocked over by a big lady who ate for both countries. It was like being hit by Ultan Dillane from Tralee.

So how have I changed? Until the White House I felt we needed to limit numbers of the oppressed who were coming in to our country.

Well, I now believe Ireland has to do all we can to bring in the less fortunate and make an Irish Dream. We can do so much good. The GAA can do so much good.

Heroes

And so too can all of our sporting organisations. Sport binds and sporting heroes break bigots.

Addis, the taxi man from Ethiopia, was driving us to the White House. When were outside the East Wing he said, "You know my friends some day my son can be President of America". So how about the Irish Dream?

We must redefine Irishness to include all of the boys and girls who have come here for our support, our love and their chance of a better life.

And maybe the day is not far away when a young African-Irish boy will take the Sam from the president of the GAA and really live the Irish Dream.

Irish Independent

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